Redmond Review

Can Microsoft Really Compete with Apple on Tablets?

Windows 8 tablets will be here, by all indications, in six months or less. Those of us with development skills tied to the Microsoft platform will be done waiting, and we'll be able to serve the tablet market with native apps. But when that time comes, Apple will have had a 2.5-year lead in the tablet market. Apple and the iPad have made significant inroads in that time. Will that impact us?

I think the answer is yes. Consider that in the consumer market, "iPad" has practically become the generic noun for "tablet." In the small business and even the enterprise markets, the iPad has gained considerable acceptance, which is all the more remarkable given its rather modest set of IT-oriented manageability and security amenities. Maybe that acceptance exists only because of the "bring your own device" craze. But arguably the iPad was the underlying catalyst for that phenomenon in the first place.

Once Windows 8 tablets are available, how will Microsoft overcome the ironically incumbent status of Apple's competing devices? How will it overcome the inertia that has set in because of them? And the really big question: Even with Windows 8 tablets on the market, can developers rely on their Microsoft platform skills alone to develop in the tablet age?

Take a Walk on the Apple Side
It may be that the Windows tablet market will become quite robust, but to establish credibility in the space, we'll nonetheless need to become accomplished iOS developers. Microsoft itself seems to condone that strategy, even if tacitly. The company has created iOS versions of SkyDrive, My Xbox Live, OneNote, Lync and Bing, and it has announced forthcoming availability of an iOS client for Dynamics CRM. In fact, I count a total of 13 Microsoft apps in the iTunes App Store.

It's as if Microsoft has decided that, in order for its tablet apps to be successful and popular, they must also be ubiquitous across tablet platforms. Oftentimes for Microsoft, there's a tipping point when arch-competitors become accepted as part of the realistic heterogeneous computing environment. These products become more fact than issue. It happened with Linux, jQuery and open source in general. Now it's happening with iOS.

The Microsoft ecosystem reflects this trend. You probably know that Xamarin Mono lets you write .NET code for numerous non-Windows platforms, including Linux and now iOS and Android. Maybe this is an approach you'll like; maybe it's not. But it certainly demonstrates that the case for being a "crossover" developer is real.

Even Infragistics, which has long specialized in components for Windows developers (as did its pre-merger ancestor Sheridan), is in the game. It now has brought an edition of its NetAdvantage component suite for iOS to beta status. That's significant and unprecedented for sure. But what's more interesting still is that the Infragistics iOS components, which include a data-bound grid and a versatile chart control, are designed for the same kind of line-of-business and data-visualization scenarios as are its .NET controls. That says a lot about where the iPad (and iPhone) has been, and where it's going.

A Technology Walkabout
If Microsoft and one of the oldest component vendors for its platform are going iOS, that really tells you something. It's clear that Microsoft doesn't want to help Apple sell more iPads, and it's also clear that the vast majority of Infragistics products remain Microsoft-focused and Windows 8-friendly. But it really seems that Microsoft and its partners are starting to think that the road to Windows 8 tablets' success passes through iOS land. With that in mind, .NET and Windows Runtime developers may need to take the same journey, even if it seems to involve a detour.

I've written before that Microsoft is very good at providing paths of transition for developers in its ecosystem when new technologies emerge. And while Microsoft certainly isn't giving us iOS project templates in Visual Studio, it still seems to be leading us by example through a competitive technology transition.

I bet Redmond thinks our ability to build decent iOS apps may better qualify us to build great Windows 8 apps. If our eyes roam a bit, Microsoft seems to understand. A little worldly experience for us may benefit the company, when we come back home. And hopefully, we will.

About the Author

Andrew Brust is Research Director for Big Data and Analytics at Gigaom Research. Andrew is co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press); an advisor to NYTECH, the New York Technology Council; co-moderator of Big On Data - New York's Data Intelligence Meetup; serves as Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; and is conference co-chair of Visual Studio Live!

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